Summer of Sam

(Spike Lee, USA, 1999)


A sobering indication of the fickle fashions ruling cinema today: between Girl 6 (1996) and Summer of Sam, three features by Spike Lee did not hit any Australian screen. The same director whose rise from She's Gotta Have It (1986) to Do the Right Thing (1989) was so phenomenal, found himself, in short order, eclipsed by younger, supposedly hipper talents.

But Lee has remained a remarkable and original filmmaker. Artistically, in the scope of his dramatic ambitions and the complexity of his style, he rivals Martin Scorsese. And he has single-handedly drawn into movies a vast range of contemporary cultural influences from music, fashion, dance, slang.

Summer of Sam is in many respects a return to the canvas of Do the Right Thing: a hot summer, a busy neighbourhood, a slow build to collective anger and violence. Once again, representative types in an uneasy melting-pot community collide, argue and affect each other's destinies as days and nights tensely wear on.

Lee uses an even more complex structure than usual, because the catalyst setting all these events in motion – the killing spree carried out by the insane Son of Sam (Michael Badalucco) – is not really the centre of the film. Our attention is directed to the entire historical moment of 1977 in New York City: the rise of disco and punk, sporting events, urban redevelopment, trends in TV news coverage.

Summer of Sam is also about modern, love-and-sex manners. It surprisingly recalls the films of Altman or Alan Rudolph in its lengthy comparison of two couples and their volatile relationships. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is going through Italo-American hell as he struggles to overcome his womanising ways for the sake of Dionna (Mira Sorvino), his loving wife.

Meanwhile, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), first punk on his block, befriends the misunderstood and maltreated Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) – while secretly moonlighting as a performer in a gay sex club. Everyone's personal confusions somehow feed into the prevailing terror and paranoia ignited by the grisly murders.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Lee's first predominantly 'white' film – as if he had never delved into the situation of white characters before.

It is hard to avoid the thought, however, that the director has seized upon this story in order to displace the burden of social breakdown and dysfunction onto the dominant white community, for a change. The more strident parts of the film resemble an Oliver Stone-style disco inferno of self-immolation, a veritable white apocalypse.

Ultimately, the tone of the piece is more observational, less judgmental. Despite some occasionally overwrought, heavy-handed moments – from the naive artist in Lee that likes to insert signs blaring 'Dead End' or speeches to the camera by black militants – this is a curiously relaxed and even-handed film, given its hot subject matter.

Not everything in it makes sense or finds a place in the overall form, but it is a fascinating comeback – at least for some viewers – of an unjustly neglected figure.

MORE Lee: A Huey P. Newton Story, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, The Original Kings of Comedy, 25th Hour, Lumière and Company, Girl 6

© Adrian Martin November 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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